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An affair to remember

February 21, 2010

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Charlie Wilson became a friend of Zia's because Joanne so told him to: Anjum Niaz. — Dawn
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This is a triangular story of platonic, sensual and long distance love between a woman and two men as different as day and night. One man being a boozer, a womaniser, the other a paragon of piety (so he led us to believe). And in the middle was a woman — attractive and steamy. At first, there was a visible tilt in the direction of the Army House in Rawalpindi, which the woman frequented. How the occupant reciprocated is a classified state secret buried with his bones at Faisal Mosque.

Curse Zia as much as you want, but unlike Musharraf, he at least left Pakistan with a legacy. The legacy was Charlie Wilson. “He won the war,” Zia said of the Texas congressman who single-handedly convinced US Congress to funnel truckloads of money to finance the CIA-sponsored war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. And how did Zia get around Wilson? The route to Wilson's heart, Zia knew, was through a woman. That woman was Joanne Herring. Our dictator general appointed the attractive socialite Pakistan's honorary consul in Texas. He flirted with her; he honoured and excited her. She fell hook, line and sinker for the president. While Wilson fell hook, line and sinker for Herring. He became a friend of Zias because Joanne so told him to.

Wilson was our mojo man, with General Zia pampering him like a spoilt brat, traipsing through Pakistan with his money bags and spark plugs to buttress the forerunners of the fanatic Taliban legion, the pseudo pious Zia tolerated the floozies and the flummery of the cowboy Texan. The credit to net Joanne Herring, then a 40-something, known “as a collector of powerful men, a social lioness and hostess” goes to Sahibzada Yaqub Ali Khan, our charming, verse-reciting (in any lingo you name it) ultimate romantic. He was our man in Washington and getting Herring named as Pakistan's Honorary Consul for Houston was a breeze for him.

If only Musharraf was half the 'lady killer' his predecessor of the 80s was, imagine where we would have been today. Instead of running after every US congressman coming to Islamabad almost every week begging for money to fight the Taliban (remember in Wilson's time the bad guys were the Soviets), Pakistan would have had someone influential like Joanne Herring to fight our cause. Now, the burden to lobby for funds has fallen on the frail shoulders of poor Husain Haqqani in Washington. We expect him to deliver; but he's no Joanne Herring! Though we can't fault him for not trying - he did after all get senators Kerry and Lugar to lobby for an aid bill named after them!

I wrote about Congressman Charlie Wilson on these pages six years ago when the book Charlie Wilson's War came out. I write today because he's no more. Here's an introduction of himself which Wilson sportingly read out to an amused audience at the Texas Book Festival in Houston when the book first came out “TO PREFIX 'the Honourable' to a man like former Representative, Charlie Wilson, a member of the US Congress from 1973-1996 is highly “inappropriate” he was a “drunken, ignorant, lying, zipper-flapping, corrupt, power hungry freak!”

With a naughty crinkle and an indulgent hauteur — 'good time Charlie', as the six-foot-four congressman was called, also known as 'the biggest playboy in Congress' he read aloud his vice-list penned by some “Australian pervert”, as Charlie called him. The Aussie intellectual had poured scorn over the book. The book rose to become a bestseller and inspired Hollywood's most-famous Tom Hanks to produce the movie and act the part of Charlie Wilson. Julia Roberts played Joanne Herring.

Written by George Crile — a man not easily impressed and a veteran producer of Sixty Minutes, America's best-loved Sunday segment — he is in total awe of his subject. “Famous for his capacity to drink more whiskey, chase more women, get into more scandals than any other legislator of his time, Charlie is literally a genius at it,” enthuses Crile to his audience while marveling at “sponsoring the only successful jihad in modern history.”

“How one man could make a huge difference” in using his influence with the CIA as the member of the all-powerful Appropriations Committee and engineering billions worth of arms transfer to Afghanistan to “drive the Russians out,” makes the curmudgeon Crile salute Charlie. Even Crile's critics concede that his account is “important, if appalling, precisely because it details how a ruthless ignoramus congressman and a high-ranking CIA thug managed to hijack the American foreign policy.”

Wilson, while “a seemingly corrupt, cocaine-snorting, scandal-prone womaniser who the CIA was convinced could only get the Agency into terrible trouble if it permitted him to become involved in any way in its operations”, as Crile earlier had commented in his show, but Crile today looks at Wilson as his hero! And so was he Pakistan's hero! Rest in peace 'good time Charlie'!

anjumniaz@rocketmail.com